Bouchercon 2019. Not a Diversity Panel. Friday, 1 November, 11AM in Reunion G-H. Recorded by Patrick von Wiegandt and transcribed here by me, Gabriel Valjan. Any errors are my own. Photos are from the web. Some photos include Squeak, my cat who passed away 27 November 2019.
CT: I’m going to go down the line and introduce my panelists. I have Michael Nava, on my right, Cheryl Head, Shawn ‘S.A.’ Cosby, and Steph Cha. I’m just going to start out by asking you to tell me, brag a little, about what you write, and all the glory that has come to you from your writing. Michael, let’s start with you. Tell me the kind of books you write.
MN: I write a series of crime fiction that features a protagonist, who is a gay Latino criminal defense attorney named Henry Rios. Initially the books were published between 1986 and 2000, then I took a nineteen-year break, to pursue my other career. I’m also a lawyer, or was a lawyer until I retired. Just this year I returned to the series, I wrote this book, Carved in Bone, bringing Rios back. That’s what I have to say.
CH: I write a series called the Charlie Mack Motown Mysteries, set in Detroit in the mid-2000s, when a time when Detroit was a scary place and a good time to write about mischief and mayhem. The first book in the series [Bury Me When I’m Dead] was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. I’ve put out two books and I’m up to four this year, and they are available in the bookstore.
I started off writing historical fiction, and it was so hard, so much research involved that I decided I’d write a mystery series, which comes naturally to me because I love the genre. I whipped the first book in about four months, so that’s all I want to say.
SC: Hi, I’m S.A. Cosby. I started out writing sci-fi and fantasy, but I wasn’t very good at that, so I switched over to crime. I write southern crime fiction, primarily featuring African-Americans. Someone said, ‘I’m the black David Joy’, and I said, ‘No, he’s the white Shawn Cosby.’
I have a novel out now that is called My Darkest Prayer, which is a southern crime mystery, and I just got signed to a two-book deal with Flatiron Books. I can’t believe it either. The first part of that deal will be Blacktop Wasteland, coming out July 14, 2020. In my spare time I deal with my cantankerous squirrel named Solomon that lives outside my window; he’s my writing partner.
Cha: Hi, I’m Steph Cha. I have three books in a PI series: Juniper Song series, which came out [Follow Her Home], in 2013, [Beware Beware] in 2014, and [Dead Soon Enough] in 2015, back to back. Then I took what looked like a hiatus, but I was working on one book the entire time, like a masochist, and that just came out earlier this month and it’s called, Your House Will Pay. Thank you.
MN: Which is widely praised everywhere.
Cha: Thank you. It’s not a PI novel, not quite a mystery but it is a crime novel; it’s a book about blacks and Koreans in Los Angeles, stemming out of the tensions of early 1990s, and that connects very directly to present-day America.
CT: I’ll start with you, Steph. Your House Will Pay is a definite departure from your Juniper Song Series. Was it harder to write a non-series book, as opposed to a book in a series, and why?
Cha: I don’t think it was the standalone nature of the book that made it harder to write. I do think that the second and third books in my series were the easiest of my books, because I was going in with a lot of the blanks filled in already. I had my protagonist, I had her voice down, I had the form—the structure roughly down, and so switching over to this and not having the mystery structure is tough because you don’t have the built-in drama conventions to play within the same way , and also it is third-person, with two close POVs and half of it is told from the point of view of a 27-year old Korean woman, which is something I’ve been in the past, and [the other half of the POV] a 41-year old black man, which I’ve never been and never will be.
Figuring out Shawn, the name of the black man, that protagonist point of view, I will say took a lot of time, but that again doesn’t have anything to do with the standalone nature of it. I’ve had characters with other backgrounds in all my books by necessity because they are about Los Angeles. I think writing from a point of view, I only had Juniper as my point of view character for the first three books and occupying a different kind of point of view was harder than writing a side character.
CT: Are you going to go back to Juniper Song?
Cha: I might, but not any time soon. I want to give her a break. She’s been through a lot.
CT: Juniper rests. Shawn, the book deal you signed. Is that a continuation?
SC: No, it’s a standalone.
CT: Do you plan to make a series out of it?
SC: I would love to make a series out of it, if the stars align and Nathan [Wannamaker from character from My Darkest Prayers] talks to me again.
CT: So, you were nominated for an Anthony Best Short Story Award.
CT: Tell us a little about your story. [The story received the Anthony Award for Best Short Story at Bouchercon 2019].
SC: Basically, the story is about a young man coming to a funeral home. He’s been incarcerated for a number of years, and he gets what is called a ‘hardship pass’. I’m from Virginia and in Virginia, if a loved one, a direct relative, passed away, if you’re incarcerated you can sometimes get a pass to see them at a funeral home to view them. You have to do it by yourself because there might be other family members that might help you escape. My wife and I—my wife owns a funeral home and I work with her.
The inspiration for the story is that we had a young man, who was viewing his mother. She had died and he had killed his father in self-defense. The father was beating him and the mother, but he was prosecuted as an adult. He went to prison at seventeen. Seeing him, seeing the ways he reacted to his mother, who he hadn’t seen in fifteen years, it stuck with me; wouldn’t leave me alone. I decided to write a short piece about it for another Noir at the Bar event in North Carolina and after I read it, a couple of people came up to me and were crying. I felt bad because I thought they really hated my story. They were ugly crying. Snotty nose and stuff. They were like, ‘You should try and get this published’ and I was like, ‘Oh, alright. I hadn’t thought about it.’ I sent it to Rusty Barnes at TOUGH, a crime blog, online only. He loved it and he published it, and about six months later my friend Kellye Garrett hits me up and said, ‘Hey, have you been to the Bouchercon web site?’ I said, ‘No, I’ve been working on this other book.’ She said, ‘You should go on there and look at it.’ I was like, ‘Why?’ She was like, ‘Just go on the web site!’
I was in my office, and I saw that I was nominated for Best Short Story. I scared the hell out of my wife because I screamed. I have a deep voice, so she had thought that I had some kind of seizure, so she comes running into the room. ‘What’s wrong? What’s wrong?’
And I was like, ‘I was nominated for an Anthony Best Short Story.’
‘Wait, what’s that?’
So, that’s how that story came about.
CT: I want to jump to Michael. You mentioned a 19-year break from Henry Rios. What made you come back to him after all this time? I’m touching on what you and Steph said about revisiting the characters and letting them rest for a while.
MN: I felt like I put him to sleep. What happened is the books were being kept in print by Open Road Media, which is part of this large conglomerate, and then the reprint rights and then our license expired and they wanted me to renew them for another five years. I thought, ‘No, I want the books back’ so I took the rights back. I set out to revise and republish them all with my own small press.
The first book, Lay Your Sleeping Head, is set around 1980; the next book, Howtown, around 1988. I realized I’d missed a crucial moment for queer history, which is the advent of AIDS; and that [realization] coincided with the 2016 election, so the day after the presidential election I sat down and started writing this novel, which is set in San Francisco in 1984, about the advent of AIDS before there was a resistance, an activist resistance, when people were just stunned—there wasn’t even a test to determine whether you were infected or not.
I wanted to write about another time that was dark and hopeless, and gay men thought they were going to be physically exterminated; that was what I did and that was what my inspiration was to write the book.
CT: Cheryl, you write Charlie Mack. Do you still hear her voice?
CH: Charlie is an African-American private investigator, who also happens to be bisexual. I thought about black women as natural private investigators.
SC: Yes, they are.
CH: I thought, ‘Wait a minute, shouldn’t she be one, too.’ She’s sort of an overachiever. She works with a diverse group of partners, and I really like those secondary characters; they help bring out her flaws and also, too, to move the story forward. I like all of them, and each of their voices is a little bit of me.
I have the most fun writing the white middle-aged guy who is her partner, Don Rutkowski, who is a little bit of an Archie Bunker-meets-Mr. Rogers sort of guy. He just blurts shit out, and I have the easiest time writing him. I don’t have to think about it at all.
Charlie also has a mother with early onset Alzheimer’s. I became fascinated with Alzheimer’s when I worked in public broadcasting. We funded a program called Forgetting about how the caretakers have such a hard time with Alzheimer’s, and how it is such a lingering and mean disease. I wanted to look at their relationship, Charlie and her mother, in the context of the care; they’re both independent women. I’m keeping the series close to the time period they’re in, because I love the mother character and I don’t want to see he deteriorate. I’m having conversations with my editor about how fast to move my series along.
CT: Do you have an end in sight?
CH: I don’t have an end in sight. I have a book 5, and I’m working on that. There’s a through-line in the relationship Charlie has with her new partner Mandy; they now have a house and a dog. I’m having fun writing some of the domestic stuff, relative to the crime, fiction, and mystery portions of it.
CT: Well, you definitely have the threads there, and carry for a while now. Steph, I want to go back to you. Your book is literally ripped from the headlines. Was that harder to write than making it up completely?
Cha: It’s based on a 1991 murder of a 15-year old girl named Latasha Harlins, who was shot in the back of the head by a Korean grocer and liquor store owner who accused her of stealing a bottle of orange juice. Most of the book takes place in 2019 and I fictionalized that event. I had to fictionalize that event because I wasn’t really writing about the actors in that murder, I was writing about the family members in present-day.
I knew I was going to take so many liberties with this story and, in doing so, I wanted to honor that initial story. That’s a fine line, right? In one sense, I’m literally erasing that story from history and replacing it with my own version. As I was doing it, one of the things I had decided that was very important to me was that at least the background in spirit I kept very close to what actually happened, so it was immediately recognizable to anybody who is picking up the book. I also have it on both ends in that both epigraph and Author’s Notes talk about the actual history. Everything in present-day departs because these are made-up characters. I would say there was one exception, Latasha Harlins’s aunt, Denise Harlins, who passed away this past December. She was this very devoted woman who became an activist after her niece’s death, and really kept Latasha’s memory alive and went really hard on defending black children. She took this up as her cause, in a way that I found extremely admirable. There is a character in the book that is loosely based on her, on that part of her life at least.
I do think there were challenges, but most of those challenges were not getting it wrong, and paying respect while also creating a work of fiction, and taking my own liberties as an artist. I spent a lot of time trying to balance that, and I’m happy with the way it turned out. I feel that as an artist you’re constantly stealing, constantly taking liberties, but as much as I could, I put a lot of thought into it.
CT: The book feels a little like a calling. What inspired you to write it?
Cha: I grew up in a LA and I was not really aware of this history growing up because I was born in the Eighties, and so when all this was going on, I was a little kid. I also lived in the suburbs. The character Grace is, in part someone I have actually been, which is the kid who grows up in suburbia in a tight-knit community that becomes its own bubble. Learning about all this history as an adult brought out all these feelings in me that were complicated. I am Korean-American but I care very deeply about issues of social justice. Hearing about the murder of Latasha Harlins, I felt immediately all of these strong emotions like rage and grief, but also guilt and shame because I’m Korean like Soon Ja Du [the shooter in real life], who could’ve lived in my community and we probably know people in common.
I think there’s something about being a part of a minority group, especially in the US, where you are often treated as one and the same, as part of the same monolith as other people who look like you. I think there is this tendency to adopt these same emotions as your group members. I was interested in exploring that, and also how much the story of Latasha Harlins and also the story of Rodney King—how much these stories and tensions look the same in 2019 in the US. I had started writing the book in 2014, which was when Michael Brown was murdered, and the stories are startlingly similar.
CT: That kind of harkens back to what Michael had said about revisiting in today’s America, the social and political climate, which causes us to draw analogies. Michael, I was looking at your book jacket and the LA Times said, ‘Nava’s mysteries are faithful to the conventions of the mystery genre, but they are set apart by their insight, compassion and sense of social justice.’
I’m going to throw this out to the whole panel, Do you feel responsible to address issues of social justice in your work, and how do you do that in balance with storytelling?
MN: I don’t think you can be a member of any kind of minority group in this country without carrying the burden of that identification. I’m friends with Alicia Gaspar de Alba at UCLA. She teaches a class called Mystery with a Mission. I know that because she taught one of my book and I went to talk to her class, and I willingly accept that moniker. I write these books, in part because I when I was a terrified little gay boy in school in Sacramento, California, the site of next year’s Bouchercon, I could have used a character like Henry Rios: a gay, confident Latino, a professional man. In a sense I am writing these books to my younger self. I’m also writing them to members of my two communities. By the way, I’m wearing pink, which is the tribal color of both Mexicans and queer people. The issue—and I think Steph touched on this, too—is, I am not a journalist, a historian, or a sociologist. I am a storyteller. I write mysteries because I love mysteries. I love Raymond Chandler; however problematic he is. Joseph Hansen was my mentor, who created the first gay mystery series. My obligation to my readers is to tell a well-crafted and well plotted story with compelling characters, and to slip some other stuff in.
CH: Yes, slipping the other stuff in. I don’t know if it’s a responsibility of doing it, but I will always write about the things that are important to me that may have my perspective on justice. I just came in from panel on justice. I think minority folks see justice in a slightly different way, so does Charlie [Mack]. I think that we know justice is not always on our side and the laws are not always on our side. There is some gray area. I know that I’m writing the truth, so I take it as it is.
I write my books for white people because I know the black people already know the stuff I’m talking about. The nuance that is there, the introductions that are there, the point of view, the way of looking at the world that is there, and looking at different events that are there are things that I think all of us can benefit knowing about. Those stories that we don’t see in traditional mysteries or have not been there up to now. When we think of Los Angeles, we’re thinking about Raymond Chandler but I think of Steph Cha and Naomi Hirahara and Walter Mosley. Those are all stories about Los Angeles, but come at the sensibility of that city, the oeuvre of that world in a different way. I think it benefits us all to be able to do that.
SC: I’m from the south and so when I first started writing Darkest Prayer, I did it with the intent of writing about black Americans in the South. There is an idea with some people that southern heritage means rebel flags and Confederate statues. Southern heritage is so much varied, so much more nuanced and so much richer than that. I really wrote it as a way to reclaim that title. Certain people may feel that, some white people may feel that way, but as soon as you meet black people in the north, who have this idea we are all down there in bib overalls, drinking Soma [drink given to the masses in A Brave New World], and keeping ourselves submissive, it’s not like that.
I had a conversation with a gentleman from Chicago and he was like, ‘I don’t know how you can live down there, in the south and taking all that crap.’ I said to him, ‘You know what? I’ve been called the n-word 6 times in my life, and every time I whooped somebody’s ass.’ And I was telling him, ‘Because you grew up in Chicago, in this bastion of black excellence, you didn’t have to deal with that in a way that I did, so it doesn’t make you tougher than me or stronger than me, just means we’ve had different experiences.’ And so when I write, I write for southern whites and southern blacks to show them that nobody has a monopoly on the rural experience. When I wrote Darkest Prayer, I was heading that way but my next book Blacktop Wasteland really jumped into that, because I also talk about black male identity and what it means to be a man, and a black man in America, and trying to be a good man and good father when the deck is almost stacked against you. Sometimes the character in that book is a wheelman. He drives for a heist and he’s literally forced back into that lifestyle. I was very interested in answering those questions. There’s a term ‘toxic masculinity’ but I also believe in ‘tragic masculinity’. Sometimes, when you are a black man, you have tragic masculinity and there is a anger and a rage you can’t verbalize because of the things you have to deal with, slight microaggressions and overt aggressions. Sometimes we translate that to our boys, our sons and daughters. I wanted to write about that. I didn’t set out with the intent of writing a socially conscious novel but I’m a walking social conscious issue. When I write, it’s going to come out, even if I don’t intend it.
Cha: I don’t think writers of color have any responsibility to write about heavy social justice-y topics. Like white writers, I think we should be allowed free range, and write about whatever we feel like. Sometimes it happens to be books that address issues such as racism in America, or other things we may have direct access to than white writers. I don’t think it’s a responsibility. I think it’s an area of interest that I keep coming back to. Crime fiction and social justice, I think, a are a perfect match because when you think about the stories you read about in the paper that touch on social justice in the US. How many of them deal with crime? Children in cages? That’s crime. People being murdered by cops? That’s crime. All these stories lend themselves naturally to the genre because they already involve murder. Already involve criminal oppression. It’s such a natural fit that I find it interesting and pretty rewarding to explore.
CT: The thing that is really unique about your book, and you touched on it earlier was that you were exploring it from both sides in Your House Will Pay. Why did you choose to do that?
Cha: When I started this book, it actually started as a short story for a collection called Asian Pulp that was an anthology of stories by Asian-American writers or about Asian-American characters. That short story was only about the Korean family, or a version of a Korean family. When I decided to expand that into a novel, I realized that I couldn’t do it from the point of view of the Korean family. It was this decision point where I was realized it would be much harder if I did it with both families involved, but I also thought that if I do it with just Korean characters then it’s going to be a Korean-American POV novel, where any involvement of the black characters I would have to flatten them into these angelic archetypes in order to get into the nuance of it without getting into the POV would have been difficult, I think, as a non-black writer.
I decided that to get some balance into the story I needed to have Shawn’s point of view and his family (my Shawn and not Shawn here). I knew going in that I would have to do that. I wanted to write a story that was about racial tension and this big city but that largely didn’t involve white people.
I actually think Korean-Black tension in early 90s Los Angeles has been in the cultural mainstream consciousness for a very long time, but you don’t see or read that much about it in popular culture. I think there are all these interesting stories with fascinating characters, and none of them are white. Storytellers haven’t been given until very recently the chance to write those stories on a platform that is large and mainstream. I definitely wanted to portray these people who were very varied and who have collisions that are very American, but that don’t really touch on the usual black-white racial politics in America.
SC: I wanted to jump in there really quick. When I wrote My Darkest Prayer and the book that follows, Blacktop Wasteland, I wanted to include the full range of people I grew up with, which are black, indigenous Americans, white Americans, good ol’ boys, frat boys, and what we call Bougie Black People, and I wanted to create a world where all those people could have voice in the conversation. In the next novel I wrote about one black man and two white guys, and they are all poor, and I wanted to write about the universality of poverty, and how things are the same for people and how things are different, depending on their background. Everyone understands pain and everybody understands poor. [Image: script from Hell or High Water movie]
Stephen King has this great quote, ‘You can never be too thin or too rich. And if you don’t believe it, you were never really fat or really poor’ [Skeleton Crew]. Being poor translates across all racial and nationality backgrounds. I wanted those people to have a voice, so that we can experience it from different perspectives. It is different being poor being a black man in the south versus being a white man in the south, yet there a lot of similarities there, too. Being similar is something that people don’t want to acknowledge. When I worked on it, I wanted to give that perspective.
CT: Cheryl, can you talk a little bit about perspective. You include a vast array of characters, which you touched on earlier.
CH: I think of Detroit as one of the bellwether cities of America, like Chicago and lots of other cities. Its history is rich in creation and innovation. Henry Ford was a racist but he was also a genius at manufacturing. Eminem comes out of there, but so does Motown.
I wanted to play off of the rich, creative culture that’s there but see it from different perspectives. Detroit once had the largest Polish-American population in the country; it had, at one time, the largest Muslim population in the country, mostly from Iraq and Lebanon, and maybe it still does in Detroit, in the outskirts.
Charlie works with a group of partners who are diverse. Mexican-American. Don Rutkowski, who is Polish. A middle-aged white woman. You don’t see white middle-aged woman in mystery books that much. She is smart, and she’s capable, and helps them solve crimes in a way that you wouldn’t think about.
I really wanted to pay homage to Detroit and what it has but also to, as Shawn has pointed out, cast this group of characters, who are very diverse and very different, and yet will seem familiar to you in a lot of ways. Does that answer your question?
CT: Actually, I made a new question while everyone was talking. In writing Carved in Bone, you said that you wanted to touch on this part of American history, the AIDS crisis, but you choose to tell that through Henry Rios. Why did you make that choice, as opposed to writing a standalone?
MN: Because in the trajectory of the series, it was a natural step. The original 7 books were written between 1988 and 2000, and every gay male writer writing at that point became a de facto AIDS writer, we could not not write about it. In the book series, the great love of Rios’s life is HIV-positive man. It was a theme and appropriate to go back and talk about the origins.
CH: Michael told me he was inspired to write this book because of our current political crisis; that was his inspiration.
CT: We all have inspiration from today’s political crisis. Let’s jump to a different topic entirely. Is there a book you wished you had written and why? Whoever wants to jump in first.
CH: I wish I had written Steph Cha’s book.
SC: I would say Kellye Garrett’s Hollywood Homicide because it is so different from what I write. It’s so funny and fast-paced. It’s breezy but not inconsequential. My calling card in my writing is someone is going to get hit in the face with a wrench. At some point, someone is going to be tortured by having the hand slammed in a car door.
It’s an incredible experience to read about Day and her whole merry band of Scooby Doo folks, who are running around LA, solving crimes and looking fabulous and beautiful and fully expressing Black Girl Magic while solving these mysteries. Reading that book was like a revelatory experience for me because it was like, ‘Wow, man. This is not something I would’ve picked up on my own, but I love Kellye so much and she’s such a great person, that I’ve got to read this book.’ I fell into it. I don’t know if I could write that kind of book. No – I know I couldn’t write that kind of book.
Cha: I would say The Surrendered by Chang-rae Lee. I’m trying to think of a book of a Korean-American author who comes to mind…oh, and I would take Harry Potter.
SC: And Harry Potter money.
MN: I knew this question was coming and I thought about it. It’s so damn hard to write my own books.
Cha: That’s actually a great answer.
CT: Does anyone in the audience have a question?
Audience: If you’re going to write about LGBTQ or persons of color, then how do you do that if you’re not in that group? How do you do that and be sensitive to stereotypes, and if you are indeed in that group, how do you be sensitive to stereotypes of yourself?
SC: I’ll say to that first part of that question is, ‘Always write a character and not a caricature.’ If you don’t have a LGBTQ friend or person in your life, then talk to someone you know is LGBTQ.
I’m working on a book right now about two fathers in the south, one black and one white, whose sons were gay, in a relationship and were murdered. These two men, who were ex-cons and hyper-alpha male men, decide to investigate the crime and they have to go into the LGBTQ world in the south. There’s a long-standing tradition in the south, especially in the black south, that your LGBTQ status is accepted if you could sing, play an instrument, or do hair but other than that, nobody wants to hear from you. I wanted to explore that.
My friend PJ Vernon, who is sitting over there, did me the solid of reading my first draft of my novel and making sure that I was telling the story appropriately, that they were fully-formed characters and not caricatures, and that they were people and not stereotypes and not just plot devices. People always get up in arms about a ‘sensitivity reader.’ A sensitivity reader is research. If it makes you feel better, then just call it research if that is what you have to do at the end of the day. You wouldn’t write about an FBI agent unless you did research about the FBI, so you’ll spend money and go to Quantico and talk to John Douglas. Do that if you’re going to write about people of color.
On that second part, as a person of color that doesn’t absolve me from the same traps that anyone else would fall into. I’m not an LGBTQ person but I’m going to make sure I write – If I’m going to write them, to write an indigenous American, and Asian-American, I’m going to try my best to make them a character, so that their ethnicity or sexual orientation is not a parlor trick.
CT: Anybody else want to weigh in?
CH: I do. You hit on a good point. A person’s quality of diversity is not their personality is the first thing I would say. There’s also this notion, or concept of cultural humility. For instance, I’m a big fan of westerns. I like Tony Hillerman, so Tony Hillerman is a white male who wrote about Native American people, and I think—and I hope you don’t disagree because I know you have Native American blood in you—that he did a good job of bringing cultural humility to his series about Joe Leaphorn and I forget the name of his secondary character [Jim Chee]. To that point, the Navajo Nation gave him an honor. They understood that he not only wrote about the culture but he liked the people. Cultural humility suggests that your never done with the research, and that you’re constantly engaging with the community, that you respect the community, and you want to know more about them, and that you like that community and it comes across in your writing when that is the case.
To the second point, I have a trans person in my third book [Catch Me When I’m Falling]. I’ve worked with trans men and women and I thought I had a pretty good idea about who they are, but I felt a little bit bare naked out there so I certainly got a sensitivity reader who I could say, ‘Am I getting the right tone? Are there other tropes I’m stepping right into?’ It really helped me to have that advice. The feedback changed the writing I did around that character.
Cha: I spent a few years working and getting to know Shawn and his family. I have some thoughts on the matter. On the front end, ask yourself Why? And what you’re trying to get out of these characters, because if it’s just going to be for a little color and a little diversity, then that’s how it’s going to come off. I would say also to go into it knowing what a huge responsibility it is because you’re not writing sci-fi. You are writing about people who exist, and make sure you’re not writing a book that you would be ashamed to share with a reader who is from that group.
I would also say that it is an enormous amount of work. I think you have to be committed to doing the work. In this book [Your House Will Pay] in Grace’s point of view, it came out of me a lot easier and a lot of the work in this book was fleshing out Shawn’s family, and I had early drafts of it that my husband and agent were reading. My husband said, ‘Grace seems like someone you know and Shawn seems like someone you read about.’ And that was what it was like in the beginning because it was true. It was because I’d approached Shawn’s character from a sociological point—trying to understand his background, what someone from central LA who now lives in the ex-burbs, what his experience would be, and it took a lot of detailed brushwork to get him to the point where he felt vivid as the main character. It took time, it took effort, and I’m glad I put it in, but it took a long time. You have to be committed to doing the detailed work. Practical advice? Figuring out his relationships, what he cared about and why he cared about them, and detailing what his home life was like—that was really effective for me, and how I got to know him. One easy way to get know a character—you have a family, you have your relationships with them, and you have your friends—think about those dynamics, and you can layer them in and make people seem real without going into, ‘What is it about them, the African-American experience that is going to make this person pop?’ Ask, ‘What is this person like around his aunt versus his cousin?’ Think about these things and that could add a lot of texture to a character.
I also had sensitivity readers, though I didn’t call them sensitivity readers because they were friends of mine who were kind enough to offer to read the book. I had black friends who read the book for me, and that was helpful, too. I think doing the work, doing the research is very key. If you’re not ready to do that, then I’d say don’t bother.
CH: I just wanted to say one thing. Steph said ‘black friends’ plural. Black people are not monolithic. Get a couple, get more than one. One more LGBTQ friend.
SC: You mean, we can’t all dance.
CH: There’s a great resource in Sisters in Crime called ‘Frankie’s List’ that is a list of people, writers in various categories, who are open and willing to being contacted to be sensitivity readers.
Cha: By the way, I wanted to add, if you were, for example, writing about black Los Angeles, having one reader who is a black Virginian is not very helpful. You have to be mindful of these differences, too. I had a friend who ended up being a gold mine for me. He’s a small-press publisher in LA, and he went to Latasha Harlins’s school a couple years after her. He heard me read my short story and he offered to look at it and talk to me. I had someone help me on the front end. I had him read it and then several other people read it on the back end.
CT: The question is in two parts. Part 1 is the difficulty of publishing when you are a person of color, or a queer writer. And then [part 2] is whether we need to stay in our lane and only write about our personal experiences.
MN: So, my problem is not with Tony Hillerman. I like his books and I think he is respectful of the people he is writing about, and I also think writers should write anything that they want to write about. My problem is that Tony Hillerman gets published, but a Native American mystery writer doesn’t. That’s not Tony Hillerman’s issue, that is an issue with the publishing industry which is still—I gave a speech about this—is still overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly straight, and overwhelmingly east coast. The people who are involved in what I call the ‘literary establishment’—I know them, I’ve worked with them, and they are lovely people, but they are infected with white supremacists beliefs about the rest of us, and that comes out in who they choose to publish and which kind of books they choose to publish by non-white, non-straight writers. For example, I think that for Latinos the notion is that a NY publisher wants to publish that la familia story because we are still regarded as a simple race of gardeners and maids.
My character is a Stanford-educated criminal defense lawyer, but that is not the first thing that comes to mind if you ask someone in New York. Mexican-American, what comes to mind? They’re thinking, those immigrant children down at the border. The stereotypes run so deep in publishing that I actually despair of it changing, which is one reason I took back my books. Now, on the other hand, the fact that Steph’s book was published and to such great acclaim that’s heartening. Very heartening.
SC: When I first started trying to get published, my first novel which, like I said, is set in the south, was sent to sixty-three publishers, and it got rejected sixty-three times. Every one, somewhere in that rejection letter said, ‘We don’t think it’s black enough’ or ‘Could you move it to Chicago?’, ‘Set it in Philadelphia?’, ‘Could there be more drug dealers in there? More violence?’, and I was like, ‘No, I’m not doing that’.
And to Michael’s point, it’s a wonderful experience when you read someone like James Patterson and I love Alex Cross, but there’s an issue when James Patterson writing Alex Cross getting published and there isn’t an African-American man or woman, or a person of color writing an Alex Cross type book.
I just got a deal with Flatiron [Books] and I’m maybe one of 7 or 8 black men with a top 5 publisher. I’m not saying that to brag, but that is the situation. That being said, I resist any external pressure about what I can and what I can’t write. My first published story was about two white redneck brothers fighting over an inheritance, and so I think you can write whatever you want, but there will be pushback; there will be resistance. There’s a long way to go, but if you persevere and stay true to who you are, then maybe one day somebody will recognize it, and even if they don’t you can look at yourself in the mirror and say that you did the best you could.
Cha: I do think the industry is still overwhelmingly white, agents and other gatekeepers are overwhelmingly white, and these are all kinda liberal, progressive people who want to see change but as long as their jobs stay occupied by exclusively white people their tastes are still going to dictate what you get as a reader, and I think those are related problems. The ‘stay in your lane’ mentality around writers of color, that if you are of that race that you ought to be writing about that race that comes from that. I think the idea of the mainstream reader (by which everyone means ‘white reader’) is that their appetite for writers of color is for stories about slavery, for example, if you’re a black writer, or the immigrant experience if you are an Asian-American or Latino. There are kinds of stories that are expected and that sell. I think the last few years have been a boom time for writers of color in the literary sphere, if you look at who is winning prizes and selling really well.
Colson Whitehead wrote a bunch of weird-ass books before he wrote Underground Railroad. That was his break, that was this huge runaway book that dealt with slavery. Percival Everett writes a slave novel. It’s just harder for writers of color to write weird fiction, or fiction that’s harder to classify because we don’t get that FSG [Farrar, Straus and Giroux] treatment. I happen to be very comfortable in my lane because I don’t feel like there are a lot of people swimming in it. I don’t feel the need to stop writing about Korean Americans in Los Angeles because if I leave, then it’s ‘Who else is hanging out there?’ But that’s just fortuitous for me.
SC: One more thing to that point, to what Steph was saying. I challenged myself a couple of months ago because I got into an argument with a friend of mine, who said I couldn’t write a cozy mystery. He said, ‘Everyone gets shot in the face, or run over with cars in your books, and I bet you that you couldn’t do it if you had to and if your life depended on it.’ I said, ‘I’ll take that bet.’
I wrote it [King’s Gambit] and I had no expectation of it doing anything, and it got picked up by Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine [the story is out in Spring 2020]. You can write whatever you want to write, if it’s a good story. There is the sense that if you’re black that you’re going to write the long-suffering ‘Woe is me and the swing low sweet chariot’ story. Like Michael said, if you’re Hispanic or Latino, you’re going to write the la familia story. If you’re a LGBTQ woman, you’re going write this sort of romance, ‘the love that dare not speak its name’ bullshit. That’s the expectation, but I think this panel is proof that you can defy that expectation.
MN: I want to make a point about readers. I think that publishers really underestimate readers, especially mystery readers. Mystery readers embraced Henry Rios. I was reviewed everywhere, from the Times to People Magazine. Mystery readers are usually intelligent, open-minded, and broad-minded, and that if you give them a good story and compelling characters, they will go with you. I think publishers do an injustice not to just writers but also to readers.
Cha: You forgot to mention that Garth Greenwell wrote a New Yorker piece [link to A Gay Mystery Novelist Who Chronicles the Aftermath of AIDS] about the Henry Rios series. That’s pretty cool.
Question to CH.
CH: On this point, and I think about it a lot. Do I have a responsibility to write about social justice? No. Do I have a responsibility in any industry I work to help the gatekeepers see the benefit of having diverse creatives in their midst. I totally feel that responsibility. I worked in public broadcasting, did a lot of work around that, the rooms in public television are whiter than this one, and there’s a case you can make that is economically, morally, and logically to them. You talk about readers who have a thirst and a curiosity about the world, especially mystery readers. I think when we present our diverse and varied stories about how we see the world and justice, you’ll see readers flocking to them and to us. We deserve to give them those authentic stories.
CT: Absolutely, and I promised to get back to you. This is our last question.
MN: I’m actually one of the judges for the LA Times Book Award in the Mystery/Suspense category this year, so I’ve been reading a lot of mysteries. I’m actually finding that is not the case. I’m finding that many writers, including white writers are tackling these issues. If you’re writing about contemporary America, they are unavoidable. I feel that maybe it’s perhaps the books we are selecting to read. I’ve been really impressed. T. Jefferson Parker is a SoCal noir writer. His new book [The Last Good Guy (Roland Ford Book 3)] is about white supremacy. Michael Connelly’s new book [The Night Fire (Renée Ballard Book 3)]…I think people are engaging in those issues.
SC: I was going to say, don’t make a presumption about anyone. I’ve met some former police officers who are writers who are tackling those issues. They are talking about rooting out the bad cops. Frank Zafiro in the Pacific Northwest writes about that. Mark Bergin from DC writes about cops dealing with other bad cops and the pressures of being a police officer. I sometimes think that the more we try to divide ourselves along hierarchical lines, it makes writing harder. I started in sci-fi and it’s not very welcoming. Mystery genre is the one genre where if you’re writing a good story and telling a good tale, people will give you a chance. Like Michael said, if publishers and agents and other readers see that, then that will open up a whole new world of experience of stories and different people. If you don’t make any prejudgments about anybody, you may find a new author who may change your life.
CH: I think it’s also about making pathways of entry for creatives who are different easy and accessible. There’s a trainer in diversity in Baltimore [Verna Myers] who has a quote that says, ‘Diversity is inviting someone who is different than you to the party. Inclusion is inviting that person to dance.’
Cha: I wrote about this recently online. I think the genre is improving and I find that very heartening. I think there is a tendency—mysteries have to wrap up in the end. There is a natural tendency towards order and resolution, which you don’t always see in the real world and especially when you’re talking about social justice and the American justice system where you are seeing a lot of messiness that in order to translate it into crime fiction has to be done with a lot of nuance and engagement. I don’t think every writer wants to do that, or that every writer has to. I think that there is a natural division in the crime genre, just from an aesthetic point of view, like the books that trust that order will be restored and the books that don’t at all.
CT: We have one minute. Literally. I want to go down the line and everybody tell what book is their most current, and all the authors will be signing in the Marsalis room downstairs. Make sure you buy their book because that is how they get to eat and keep writing for you. Steph, let’s start with you.
Cha: Your House Will Pay. I have a copy here because it’s Michael’s copy.
SC: [Holds up copy of My Darkest Prayer]. Unfortunately it’s not in the book room. There were only 5 copies, but I’m glad all 5 are gone. It’s available on Amazon, and my next book is Blacktop Wasteland next year. If you bought a copy, I will sign it.